City Education Athens is torn over these proposed changes to local elementary schools By Delaney Murray Posted on August 27, 2017 10 min read 1 0 1,250 This sign on E. State St. popped up against proposed changes to Athens elementary schools. Photo by Connor Perrett. Instead of the five elementary schools that currently serve 300 to 400 students, the Athens City School Board has proposed what some residents have dubbed a “mega-school.” The Athens City School Board has been discussing the possibility of shifting the elementary school campuses to a more consolidated model since last year. Many teachers and community members have rallied around the potential shift, but others remain concerned about what impact a change would have on students and the Athens community. Photo by Connor Perrett No current school building holds the necessary capacity for the amount of students who are expected to attend a consolidated model. Ohio University offered a stretch of land at the Ridges if all schools were packed into one campus, which is supported by option one. This land offer, in addition to other factors, makes the first option particularly attractive to board member Chris Gerig. Options for change: Option #1 - Close-knit campus of three schools - Separately housing students kindergarten through first grade, second through third grade, and fourth through fifth grade students. Option #2 - Two schools - One housing all kindergarten through second graders, the other housing third through fifth graders. Option #3 - Two separate schools that each house kindergarten through fifth grade. Option #4 - Two schools of kindergarteners through third graders eventually integrated into one large school for fourth and fifth grade students. - Sixth grade may also be included in the final large school. “I’m personally a believer that we should go with the single campus,” Gerig said. “That seems to be the option that was overwhelming supported by the teacher’s union, and Ohio University is offering the grounds to a single campus to us for free, as well as a partnership in terms of how our planning goes. So for me, that is an attractive option for us to at least consider.” A survey of Athens residents published in August regarding the community’s current perspective on consolidated schools found nearly 50 percent opposition to each of the four proposed plans. One of the primary reasons for the shift comes from concerns that there is a prevalent socioeconomic division within the current system. Many students of the Plains Elementary School in particular are in need of more free lunch and special education services than students at the other schools, according to school board member Robert Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse also said there are issues with regulating the academic curriculum between four different schools. There are issues across the board with disability services, according to Gerig. Concern has also risen over how money is spent on maintaining current school buildings. Gerig pointed out that many have fallen into disrepair or are under-occupied to the point that costs of keeping the four buildings open may surpass that of building new campuses. None of the proposals involve a mega-school; we’re not building a giant Walmart that would be the school. Taking three schools that have the population we have now and putting them close together is not a mega-school. – Robert Rittenhouse, school board member The teacher’s union expressed support for the first large campus option in the past year. Other community members, however, have concerns with the idea. Jennifer Klein, who is running for school board, is in support of improving socioeconomic divisions, disability services and budgetary concerns, but is opposed to doing so with an entirely new system. “I am in favor of economic integration,” Kline said. “I don’t think we should have students living in poverty all focused in the same school. But mostly, I’m in favor of all children having a small school so that adults know who they are, and I believe the best environment for children is an environment where people know their name and are looking out for them. I think you can integrate schools so that economic distribution is more equitable without making everyone go to a large school. I don’t think those two are mutually exclusive.” Although the topic has garnered substantial discussion and debate, there is still miscommunication and misunderstanding within the community. The issue of a consolidated school has been coined as the “mega-school debate” throughout Athens, but most of the steering committee’s proposals involve several small schools grouped closely together. “There is a significant misunderstanding of option one, and that has been somewhat propagated by yard signs,” Rittenhouse said. “None of the proposals involve a mega-school; we’re not building a giant Walmart that would be the school. Taking three schools that have the population we have now and putting them close together is not a mega-school.” Photo by Connor Perrett Klein has also noticed communication issues in the Athens community, and said that some residents are unaware of the current school proposals. “Among my neighbors, almost everyone is very aware of what’s happening,” Klein said. “But there have been at least a few people I’ve spoken to who didn’t know what I was talking about when I asked about consolidated schools. We need to listen more to people in the community to see what people are in favor of and what they need. I think we need more listening.” Rittenhouse says there are no current plans to close West Elementary school, despite some rumors suggesting otherwise. Like the other elementary school campuses, West’s role will be considered in the construction of a new school campus. In Goldsberry’s new proposed plan, the West campus may eventually be converted to a sports practice facility for the middle school. Some community members are also concerned that a new school system will result in cutting down school staff to better fit the more consolidated model. However, none of the plans currently call for a reduction of teachers. Community input on the issue is allowed at school board meetings, and a community vote may be needed on decisions going forward, particularly if the school system will need additional taxpayer funds for a new campus. Rittenhouse estimates that it will take three to five years before any sort of concrete plan comes to fruition.